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Report: China Tests Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles in South China Sea

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DF-26 launchers (file image via social media)

By The Maritime Executive 2019-07-02 18:00:55

China's military is testing its advanced anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) in the waters of the South China Sea, according to a new report from NBC. Two American officials told the network that Chinese forces fired off one missile last weekend, and one more launch is expected by midweek. 

China is the only nation to deploy medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles with ship-targeting guidance systems. These weapons may pose a serious challenge to today's naval air defense systems, which are designed to counter supersonic missiles traveling horizontally - not hypersonic warheads arriving from above at Mach 10. U.S. Navy officials have emphasized that defense against Chinese anti-ship capabilities in the South China Sea would involve disrupting other parts of the "kill chain," like the intelligence-gathering and targeting networks required to guide the missile, not just the munition itself. 

“We know that China has the most advanced ballistic missile force in the world,” said Capt. James Fanell (ret'd), a former intelligence officer with the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet, speaking to Reuters in April. “They have the capacity to overwhelm the defensive systems we are pursuing.”

In a previous drill in January, the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force test-fired its DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile from an undisclosed desert location in northwestern China. The DF-26 is capable of striking targets in the South China Sea from launchers staged thousands of miles inland, far from likely conflict zones. A smaller medium-range Chinese ASBM, the DF-21D, has a range of about 900 miles - enough to reach the Spratly Islands from Guangdong Province. 

Video from a previous Chinese ASBM drill in January 2019 (Courtesy South China Morning Post)

Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, despite a clear ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague that there is "no legal basis" for Chinese territorial waters hundreds of miles from China. The region is home to hotly-contested claims over fishing grounds, oil and gas exploration rights and national boundaries.

China has built a string of island military bases in the region using land features claimed by other nations. In the Spratly Islands, multiple Chinese facilities now occupy former reefs within the Philippine EEZ. The U.S. Navy conducts periodic patrols in the vicinity of these installations in order to demonstrate freedom of navigation, drawing condemnation from Beijing.